We Shouldn’t Need Doc McStuffins To Give Us Permission To Be Wrong

My 5 year-old daughter loves to watch Doc McStuffins. My wife and I are glad she has graduated from Mickey Mouse Clubhouse to Doc which is a bit more intellectually stimulating and also features a black female lead, something we like to see as parents of a girl. So when we noticed new episodes were available, we all got excited – our daughter because of the new story, and Mom and Dad so we at least have a new episode to put into the rotation of old episodes that we have seen a seemingly infinite number of times.

The new episode is titled “Nurse’s Office” which is a bit misleading because the main plotline is that Chili, Doc’s stuffed snowman, is nervous about attending the new school Doc has setup for her toys. He’s so nervous that he keeps asking to go see the school nurse (also one of Doc’s stuffed toys) so that he can avoid class.

Why is Chili so nervous? Because he doesn’t want to be wrong. And that makes me sad.

“It’s a great day to be wrong!”
-Ken Mattingly

I’ve recently started implementing Standards-Based Learning and Grading in one of my classes, and one of the foundations of the SBL/SBG system is that students are free to make mistakes, because that means there is learning happening. If students are afraid to be wrong and fail once in a while, they will never stretch themselves to the point where they can learn as deeply as we want them to. I’ve heard Ken Mattingly (@kenmattingly) say something that I absolutely love regarding failure: “It’s a great day to be wrong!”

Clearly the message of the episode is that there is no reason to fear being wrong, and of course by the end of the episode Doc and her other toys have reassured Chili that he has no reason to fear being wrong, that he should be confident in his abilities. What bothers me is that this episode even needed to be created. The fear of being wrong and being scrutinized by teachers and peers is still so strong that we continue to have to find creative ways to convince our young children that they should not fear failure. Further, this message is clearly not reaching the kids it should. Doc McStuffins is geared toward kids from about 3-6. Which age group NEVER has a problem with trying new things and fearing failure? Exactly the age range that Doc McStuffins targets.

Maybe we need a cute little animated show to teach this message to our school-age children. Better yet, maybe we need a cute little animated show to teach this message to their teachers.

Diving into SBG/SBL

As week 2 of our school year comes to a close, it’s time to start reflecting on the beginning of my SBG/SBL journey. I decided late last school year after reading and watching some of the great stuff from Rick Wormeli (@rickwormeli2) that it is time to start putting the emphasis on student learning and not on point chasing. I had put some SBG/SBL practices in place already (multiple attempts allowed, no due dates and therefore no penalties for late work), but it was time to dive in completely instead of just getting my feet wet.

First, a little background on my implementation of SBG/SBL. Here are the basics:

  • I identified all of the necessary concepts (standards) that the students would need to learn about. Then, after seeing what Danielle Bendt (@mrsbendt66) did with her science classes, I honed in on 4 key skills the students would have to master for each topic. These became the learning targets.
  • I created a rubric that would be used for each of the assignments. It clearly shows the students what they have to do for each of the 4 skills to get a particular “rating” as I call them (NOT scores!). After a lot of reading about different rubric methods I decided I really like the idea of only 3 levels: 0, 1, and 2. A zero means the student has not attempted the skill or has not demonstrated an understanding of the concept. A one means the student has successfully demonstrated proficiency with that skill. I equate this to a B. A two means the student as demonstrate a deeper level of mastery of the skill, often requiring the students to apply the skill in a unique way. I equate this to an A.
  • Students work through the course independently. Megan Moran (@MeganCMoMo) introduced me to this and I think it’s a great idea to let kids work at their own pace to ensure they are given enough opportunity to demonstrate proficiency. It was  A LOT of work to create all the materials, but I’m liking it so far.
  • There are no due dates, and students can resubmit as often as they like to either get to a 1 or a 2.
  • I provide A LOT of very descriptive feedback so that students are clear about what they need to fix/modify to earn a higher rating.
  • Students are allowed to demonstrate proficiency or mastery using whatever method they feel is best for them. I setup all of the assignments to require writing, but I make it very clear everyday that they are free to share their answers with me verbally if they prefer.

Below is the skills rubric I’m using for my Sports & Entertainment Marketing class

I’ve read about the experiences of other teachers who had students who were skeptical of such a drastically different system of evaluation, but I was pleasantly surprised that my students just rolled with it. After explaining how it would work and the reasons for the change, many students were visibly intrigued, and it appears that, so far, most are happy with this different setup. I have high standards for their work, especially since they are allowed to resubmit as often as they need to, and some students have gotten frustrated with all the zeroes they get on the first try. But they are getting more familiar with my expectations for their answers, and I’m already starting to see less zeroes on that first attempt.

“In here, you don’t get the choice to be mediocre.”

I am a strong advocate for the 2 level rubric system. I know many teachers use a rubric with 4 levels, but I dislike that setup for 2 main reasons. First, it gets messy, and becomes hard to decide what rating to give, and, I think, starts to become as arbitrary as assigning percentages. Second, it gives students the choice to not be proficient. Why even list the requirements for being mediocre? I tell my students regularly “in here, you don’t get the choice to be mediocre.” If I want them to be proficient, why validate mediocrity with a description for achieving at that level? I provide plenty of feedback that lets the students know what they need to do to get to that 1 rating.

I am so pleased with the level of engagement and dedication my students have demonstrated so far. They have been accepting of such a “strange” system that they are not used to, and I think that is because they realize they are free to make mistakes along the way, and that it really is about their learning and not collecting points.

I’ve also noticed that because the students work independently, I am able to meet the needs of individual students when they need it, and I am having some wonderful discussions with students about the course topics. They are revealing ways of thinking that I never would have imagined, and I would not have had this same opportunity if I was the one leading class each day and ensuring the kids are all working on the same task.

I also have a great success story to share. I have noticed the last few days that a girl in my class (we’ll call her Susie) has not really been working much and her body language has suggested she isn’t sure how to move forward. I noticed in my records that one one assignment she had received a 0 rating on all 4 of the skills. So today I made a point to meet with her to get her back on track. All this girl needed was to be able to talk it out. We had a great discussion about her answers and where she went wrong. After some prompting from me and rephrasing the questions, she was able to successfully earn that 1 rating on all 4 of the skills. Her body language had suddenly changed to that of someone experiencing success rather than failure. She told me she isn’t very good with writing, especially on the computer. She said she prefers pencil and paper. When I told her she is welcome to hand write all assignments or give me her answers verbally, her relief was apparent. She now has a renewed confidence, and her attentiveness and focus were much better after that point. She was even quite excited to share with me an idea she had later in the class. It felt really good.

I was so thrilled yesterday when I was reviewing some answers with a group of 3 students. Eventually one of them said “you should tell all the teachers in the school to do this.” When I asked him why, he said, “because it’s not about doing good on a test. I feel like in here I’m actually supposed to learn.” Then one of other boys added, “yeah, we get to keep trying even if we do bad the first time.”

Such empowering words to hear from students. I can’t wait to see where we’re at in another 2 weeks.